The most important thing about the treats I use is that it has to have enough value to my horse to reinforce the desired behaviour. After all it is the receiver that determines the reward, not the trainer: I want the behaviour, my horse wants the treat. Let’s make it a win-win.
Treats can differ in ‘value’ for the horse, depending on circumstances. Not only the value matters when you use treats in training. There is more to consider when you choose treats for training.
When you introduce the click or another bridge signal to your horse a small treat that can be eaten quickly is a good choice. If the horse isn’t very interested in the treat, try a higher value treat.
If your horse has trouble ‘finding’ the treat on your hand and or gets nervous about missing out, try a bigger size treat. One that he can see easily see and take off your hand.
The trainer can carry more treats if they are smaller. More treats means less refills. This can be handy on a long trail ride or during training sessions where the trainer doesn’t want to leave the horse (vet treatment, farrier).
A food reward shouldn’t take long to eat. If the horse has to chew too long it distracts from training.
If the treats are very small, like pellets, it can take a while before the horse eats everything. The last few pellets might be too small to eat safely. Consider just dropping them on the ground.
There are low value treats and high value treats. It is always the horse who determines if something is high or low value to him. Low value treats can be normal dinner grain or hay cubes, high value treats are special treats that are extra tasty, like carrots.
Work with treats that are as low value as possible, but still reinforces the desired behaviour.
Use high value treats for special occasions. For example if the horse has to do something difficult, painful (like a vet treatment) or scary.
High value treats also make excellent jackpots.
If your horse gets greedy or displays dangerous or undesired behaviour like biting or mugging, try lower value treats.
For horses that are overweight, have a tendency to get overweight or founder easily low calorie treats are a healthy choice.
Deduct the amount of calories offered during training from your horses normal feeds.
Vitamin pellets are often a healthy choice, check the label. Most ones have a decent size, they are non sticky and are low in sugar and calories.
Practical things matter
Not all trainers like to have sticky treats like apple pieces or sugar covered cereal in their pocket.
My horse Kyra likes soaked beetpulp, but I don’t like to carry it around. Sometimes I bring it to the arena in a plastic container which I put on the ground. Not very practical during riding, but perfect as jackpot in groundwork or during trick training.
Some treats, like sour apples, can increase the amount of saliva in your horse’s mouth or can cause foaming saliva. Which can become messy. It can also increase behaviour like licking your hands. If you don’t like that, try avoid these treats.
If you bridge and reinforce a lot, cost can become an issue. Commercial horse treats are very expensive per treat in comparison to home made treats, dinner grain or hay cubes.
Sandra Poppema, B.Sc.
I improve human-horse relationships. I reconnect you with your inner wisdom (you know what’s right) and teach you the principles of learning and motivation, so you become confident and knowledgeable to train your horse in a safe, effective and FUN way. Win-win.
All HippoLogic’s programs are focused on building your confidence and provide you with a step-by-step formula to train horses with 100% positive reinforcement.